Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The Drunkards' Hit Parade: The Top Five
Not every song over-requested at a bar is a bad piece of music. Some things that become clichés are actually pretty good ideas that just get repeated too often for their own good. I'm actually fond of the next five songs on the list, and I will also 'splain why.
5. Crazy There are lots of songs with this title. The one that makes the Drunkards' Hit Parade is the one written by Willie Nelson and popularized by Patsy Cline. I put this on the list both because I like it and to make it clear after taking the big ugly stick to Achy Breaky Heart that I don't hate all country music. I am much fonder of the era of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than I am of the era of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. (If anyone asks which Hank Williams, I will ignore the question out of respect for our friendship.)
4. American Pie Don McLean's best hit, though not his only, has been tarnished by being covered by Madonna, and i have sympathy for the performers who have to play it on request, since it is a lot of verses to remember, but I still have vague memories of really liking this song the first fifty times I heard it, and those fond memories have made the next nine hundred and fifty times I've heard it almost bearable.
3. Little Red Corvette I make no apology for loving this tune. My students tell me that old Michael Jackson and Prince tunes are still played in clubs, and both Padre Mickey and I have already stated our shared opinion that Little Red Corvette is a perfect pop song.
2. Stardust Originally the title was two words, but over time it was compressed. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the tune in 1927 and Mitchell Parish added lyrics in 1929. It has been recorded a jillion times and several people had hits with it. The tune is more like an art song that a standard pop song. There's an opening melody that starts with the lyric And now the purple dust of twilight time/Steals across the meadows of my heart that not everyone includes. That was the style of tunes written in the twenties and thirties. Like American Pie, it feels like I have heard this a thousand times, but I do not mind hearing someone do it well again.
1. Send in the Clowns I have already written about being on a Sondheim kick currently, but I do not currently own a version of the song that is the biggest hit he ever wrote. The song was added to the show A Little Night Music while it was being rehearsed, when producer Hal Prince decided that the character of Desirée needed a song in the second act. Glynis Johns originated the role, and it's a tune written to compensate for the limitations of a singer's voice. The range is barely an octave, and it can be sung in short notes that do not have to be sustained. Somewhat ironically, it became a hit when Judy Collins, a singer whose voice has no such limitations, recorded it. Collins, whose taste is as fine as her voice is sweet, did not really show off and jazz it up. She just sustained notes a little longer. After that, Frank Sinatra also recorded it and it entered the Great American Songbook.
For me, what makes it my favorite overplayed tune is the lyric. Coming from a play, it is written with a specific character in mind. Desirée is an actress, and the song is written in stage jargon, which Sondheim clearly knows well. Sondheim was surprised that people didn't understand that "the clowns" were not the circus clowns, but the clowns on stage, the comic relief characters. He was thinking more of Bert Lahr or Ed Wynn than Bozo, but this didn't stop Krusty the Klown from covering the tune in his own inimitable style.
Going back to the lyric, here is the bridge.
Just when I'd stopped
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.
Like many of the tunes on the list, it's very sentimental, but the brilliance of the construction makes me forgive that. I used to play it when I did a solo act, and I didn't even need a drunk to request it. There are a jillion versions over on YouTube, many from actresses who played the role. Of the actresses, Dame Judi Dench's version is my favorite, which she sings at the end of an interview on British TV. Of course, she's such a charmer, I could listen to her talk about shopping for a new mop.
Other requests will be considered from my commenters, and you don't even have to get liquored up first if you don't want to.